On “Jesus Smuggling,” Impatience with Window Shopping, and a World That Can’t Help Being Beautiful
I’ve started reading Nick Cave’s Faith, Hope, and Carnage, which is basically a memoir-ish extended interview with journalist Seán O’Hagan. I have to say that so far, it’s pretty awesome. Nearly every other page, I’m thinking, “Oh, that’s good, I need to use that in a sermon or an essay or something.” You may have to tolerate a bunch of quotes around here for a while.
So, one of the early themes is that Cave seems to be a bit too religious for his interlocutor. This is particularly true in the chapter called “The Utility of Belief” which contains this exchange on the limits of reason:
Seán O’Hagan: So, just to make sure I’ve got this right: you would like to get past your doubt and just believe wholeheartedly in God, but your rational self is telling you otherwise.
Nick Cave: Well, my rational self seems less assured these days, less confident. Things happen in your life, terrible things, great obliterating events, where the need for spiritual consolation can be immense, and your sense of what is rational is less coherent and can suddenly find itself on very shaky ground. We are supposed to put our faith in the rational world, yet when the world stops making sense, perhaps your need for some greater meaning can override reason. And, in fact, it can suddenly seem the least interesting, most predictable and least rewarding aspect of your self. That is my experience, anyway. I think of late I’ve grown increasingly impatient with my own scepticism; it feels obtuse and counter-productive, something that’s simply standing in the way of a better-lived life. I feel it would be good for me to get beyond it. I think I would be happier if I stopped window shopping and just stepped through the door.
Cave’s response is brilliant. I have noticed a similar theme in my own life over at least the last half-decade or so. Reason still matters to me, but I, too, get impatient with it. It doesn’t account for enough—or at least not enough that is interesting. And of course there are those “great obliterating events” that people must endure, which require so very much more to be true in the world than what merely makes sense.
A bit later, O’Hagan expresses a bit of confusion, possibly even irritation that Cave insists upon seeing a transcendental element to all music and song writing.
Seán O’Hagan: And yet there are many great songs and pieces of music that don’t reach into the divine. You’ve written some of them.
Nick Cave: Well, I don’t know what those songs are. A song doesn’t have to be explicitly religious to have transcendent qualities.
SO: Did this notion of transcendence apply when you were writing your older, less obviously religious songs?
NC: Yes, I think so.
SO: A song like ‘Breathless’, for instance, seems to me to exalt the luminous beauty of the everyday. Is that not a wondrous subject in and of itself?
NC: Yes, and the luminous and shocking beauty of the everyday is something I try to remain alert to, if only as an antidote to the chronic cynicism and disenchantment that seems to surround everything these days. It tells me that, despite how debased or corrupt we are told humanity is and how degraded the world has become, it just keeps on being beautiful. It can’t help it.
But ‘Breathless’ is, in fact, an explicitly religious song. A love song to God.
SO: No! It was one of the songs we played at our wedding. I never took it for a God song.
NC: Well, that’s what’s known as Jesus smuggling! And it worked.
I love it. I may even have laughed out loud at the bemused discovery that a wedding song that you assumed to be safely godless turned out to be “a love song to God.”
Long live the Jesus smugglers, wherever they are and however they do it. Long live the ones who refuse to relinquish transcendence. Long live the ones who resist easy cynicism and stubbornly cling to beauty.